The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm. As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.
It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history. That will be followed by posts on how we’ve had to evolve on issues of immigration and population control, environmental justice, and Indigenous sovereignty. We will also devote a post to a discussion of how the Sierra Club is working to center the voices of people we have historically ignored, so we can begin repairing some of the harms done.
The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race. Head of the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn also helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir’s death.
And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.
Other early Sierra Club members and leaders -- like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan -- were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics. Jordan, for example, served on the board of directors during Muir’s presidency. A “kingpin” of the eugenics movement, he pushed for forced-sterilization laws and programs that deprived tens of thousands of women of their right to bear children -- mostly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor women, and those living with disabilities and mental illness. He cofounded the Human Betterment Foundation, whose research and model laws were used to create Nazi Germany’s eugenics legislation.